Skip to main content

Full text of "Man/Boy Love and the American Gay Movement"

See other formats

jl -4^ ^ 

Man/Boy Love 

and the American Gay Movement 

David Thorstad, MA 
New York City 

SUMMARY. The issue of man/boy love has intersected the gay 
movement since the late nineteenth century, with the rise of the first 
gay rights movement in Germany. In the United States, as the gay 
movement has retreated from its vision of sexual freedom for all in 
favor of integration into existing social and political structures, it 
has sought to marginalize cross-generational love as a "non-gay" 
issue. The two movements continue to overlap, amid signs of mu- 
tual support as well as tension -a state of affairs that also character- 
izes their interrelationship in other countries. This article offers an 
overview and analysis of that interrelationship in the United States 
since the Stonewall Riots in New York City in June 1969, which 
marked the beginning of a reinvigorated struggle for gay liberation. 

"Off the consenting adults bullshit!" So concluded this item in a 
gay newspaper not long after the June 1969 Stonewall Riots at a gay 
bar in New York City's Greenwich Village: 


The Netherlands continues to be one of the most liberal coun- 
tries in the world. The Dutch government recently introduced 
a new parliamentary measure that would make most chicken 
legal. The new legal age for homosexual fun would be set at 

David Thorstad is a former president of New York's Gay Activists Alliance 
and a founding member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association 
(NAMBLA) and of New York's Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights (CLGR). He 
is co-author, with John Lauritsen, of The Early Homosexual Rights Movement 
(1864-1935). Correspondence may be addressed to David Thorstad, c/o 
NAMBLA, P.O. Box 174 Midtown Station, New York, NY 10018. 

© 1991 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved. 251 


16 — the same as for the heteros if the new law passes as ex- 
pected. Recently, similar legislation was introduced in the Or- 
egon legislature and is expected to be passed into law by 1971. 
Off the consenting adults bullshit! 1 

The assumptions here reflect the pleasure-affirming impulses of the 
"Stonewall generation": Sex is fun, homosexuality is fun, boy- 
love is fun, gay liberation is a movement for everyone's sexual 
liberation. The rebels who fought the police at the Stonewall Inn — 
teenage youths and drag queens — affirmed the joys of an outlaw 
sexuality in the face of the outmoded moral norms of the dominant 

Today, however, the gay movement limits its concerns to what 
consenting adults do in private. In the era of AIDS, it has de-em- 
phasized sex, and seeks to sanitize the image of homosexuality to 
facilitate its entrance into the social mainstream. The sexual needs 
of young people have been devalued in favor of the priorities of an 
upwardly mobile adult gay middle class ("guppies" — gay urban 
professionals). In short, the gay movement's agenda is being deter- 
mined increasingly by straight society, rather than by homosexuals 

My aim here is to document and summarize incidents that have 
characterized the interfacing between the U.S. gay movement and 
the man/boy love issue since Stonewall. Much more could be said, 
but the incidents discussed here are typical and salient. 


As the beginning statement of this article demonstrates, man/boy 
love occasionally intersected the broader gay movement in the years 
following the Stonewall Riots, even though it was not a major is- 

New York's Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), successor to the Gay 
Liberation Front and a prototype activist group founded in Decem- 
ber 1969, opposed legal restrictions on sex based on age, although 
this was never a focus of the group's activities. 2 In 1976 GAA be- 
came the first gay group in New York — and probably in the coun- 
try—to sponsor a public forum on man/boy love. Held at the 

David Thorstad 253 

Church of the Beloved Disciple on April 4, the forum brought to- 
gether a "panel of pederasts" to speak on the topic "Of Men and 
Boys: Pederasty and the Age of Consent." 

The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition, a cross-Canada 
group, also favored abolishing the age of consent. Many activists 
shared the view that the state had no business regulating sex be- 
tween consenting partners, whatever their age. 

Boy-lovers were involved in the gay movement from the begin- 
ning, and their presence was tolerated. Gay youth groups encour- 
aged adults to attend their dances. Youth fought to be treated as 
equal participants in struggle — not as a category of innocents in 
need of special protection from homosexual seduction, as they are 
usually regarded today. There was a mood of tolerance, even joy at 
discovering the myriad lifestyles within the gay and lesbian subcul- 
ture. "Love is a many-gendered thing," read a banner at a 1971 
gay demonstration in Albany, the New York State capital. Still, the 
issue of sex between adults and minors rarely arose. 


In 1977, the issue of sex between adults and minors moved 
abruptly to center stage. Anita Bryant began to articulate the mount- 
ing backlash to gay liberation by zeroing in on a perceived weak 
link: the widespread belief that gay men seduce young boys and 
turn them into queers. The name of her organization — Save Our 
Children— transparently implied this. 

Simultaneously, a new hysteria about "kiddie porn" arose, fed 
by the political right and the feminist movement, with unmistakable 
suggestions that gay men who loved boys were in reality exploiting 
and abusing them. This clever propaganda ploy not only deftly ex- 
ploited the public's ignorance about homosexuality, but also caught 
the gay movement off guard: It was unprepared to make an intelli- 
gent rebuttal. Pederasty was a secret not to be told. Yet although 
man/boy love represented a minority phenomenon within the gay 
subculture, it was far from unusual. 3 

The gay movement went into a defensive mode. "Oh, no, homo- 
sexuals don't do that. Most child molestation is by heterosexual 
men against little girls." It didn't occur to gay spokespeople to 


draw a distinction between being raped or molested and enjoying 
sex, or to point out that underage males frequently enjoy and seek to 
have sex, with men and women. No one thought to ask boy-lovers 
or boys themselves to respond to the accusation. 

The mounting hysteria focused on sex between men and boys. 
No one expressed concern about women having sex with underage 
males; after all, that was heterosexual, considered more a pecca- 
dillo than a taboo — the woman was performing a social service by 
introducing the boy to the joys of heterosexuality. 

Instead of fighting to liberate youth, it became fashionable to 
argue that youth needed protection, especially from sex with men. 
A perversion of language arose, reminiscent of the Newspeak of 
George OrwelPs 1984, in which "love" really meant "rape." The 
negative experiences of many females at the hands of straight men 
aroused skepticism about the ability of boy-lovers to be any differ- 
ent with their boyfriends. 

Under pressure from the women's movement and lesbian activ- 
ists, the gay movement began to internalize straight society's 
stereotype of pederasty as inherently exploitative, a form of "sex- 
ual abuse," even when the youth wanted and enjoyed it. Like soci- 
ety at large, the women's and lesbian/gay movements seemed more 
concerned about consensual sex between men and boys than about 
actual physical abuse of children within the family, an epidemic 
problem. Most activists in these movements, both adult-run, 
wished the issue of cross-generational sex would just go away. But 
it didn't. 

Boy-lovers began to organize for the first time, in response to 
two widely publicized incidents in December 1977. Following the 
arrest of 24 men in Revere, Massachusetts, for consensual sex with 
boys (mostly teenagers), the Boston-Boise Committee was formed. 
Its goal was to educate the media and public about the issues in- 
volved. A few weeks later, the Body Politic, a Canadian gay libera- 
tion newspaper, was raided by the police because it had published 
an article entitled "Men Loving Boys Loving Men." 4 

On December 2, 1978, 150 persons attended a conference on 
"Man/Boy Love and the Age of Consent" in Boston's Community 
Church. Initiated by Tom Reeves of the Boston-Boise Committee, 

David Thorstad 255 

several participants were prominent in the gay and progressive 
movements, which gave the issue a new urgency. Afterwards, 30 
boy-lovers and youth formed their first activist organization, the 
North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Boy-lov- 
ers and gay youth were becoming active protagonists. 

The fact that boy-lovers had come out of their closet within a 
closet immediately embroiled the gay movement in controversy. 
Gay Community News' first 1979 issue published my "Statement to 
the Gay Liberation Movement on the Issue of Man/Boy Love," 
which challenged the movement to return to a vision of sexual liber- 
ation. It argued that "the ultimate goal of gay liberation is the 
achievement of sexual freedom for all — not just equal rights for 
'lesbians and gay men/ but also freedom of sexual expression for 
young people and children." It criticized the movement for "limit- 
ing itself to a turf restricted to consenting adults" and behaving "as 
though sex had nothing— or little — to do with our struggle." It 
urged the movement not to limit its demands "to those thought 
acceptable to a frightened status quo." 5 

This "manifesto" set off a debate that lasted several months. 
Much of the lesbian response was hostile and buttressed with argu- 
ments like "lesbians don't do that." But a piece by one lesbian 
feminist stood out for its sensible treatment of a topic heretofore 
passed over in silence: woman-girl love. Beth Kelly's "On 
'Woman/Girl Love' -Or, Lesbians Do 'Do It'" noted that the ig- 
norant reactions of many lesbians to man/boy love had helped her to 
understand "what it could mean to know that your most intensely 
private moments were nothing more than threads in the widely 
woven fabric of political experience that enfolds us all." A lifelong 
lesbian, she acknowledged being involved in cross-generational 
love "as a girl and as a woman." She described her sexual love for 
her great-aunt — more than 50 years her senior— when she was be- 
tween eight and eleven years old. She summarized her journey to 

It has always seemed to me that people know when sex is a 
right thing for them to be doing, when mutually consented to, 
regardless of who else may or may not share or understand that 


knowledge. It took some hard object lessons before I finally 
learned how unusual such logic is in this world. Despite the 
cultural messages to the contrary that I eventually did receive, 
I knew that it was possible for a person to be aware of her own 
physicalness in a sexual way long before the social timetable 
of "maturity" says she should be - and to be able to act on her 
awareness. And I know that now, with all my "grown-up" 
being. Although for several years I succumbed to social sanc- 
tions against lesbian and childhood sexuality, and felt ashamed 
for having had such experiences, I have come to realize the 
need to affirm them as part of the rich texture of both human 
experience in general and my own conscious reality in particu- 
lar. 6 

Kelly's piece moved me to tears. At last a lesbian activist had 
challenged the feminist taboo against speaking out about^ her own 
experience of cross-generational love in terms other than "rape" or 

I asked an activist lesbian friend what she thought about Kelly's 
article. "It was ridiculous," she replied. But how, I protested, 
could a well-reasoned, clearly authentic and moving article be dis- 
missed so easily? "It was just ridiculous. Lesbians don't do that." 
Yet this same woman took a friendly interest in my own evolving 
friendship with a 14-year-old boy. "How's your boyfriend?" she 
would ask. I misinterpreted these inquiries as signs of support. As 
long as boy-love remained entre nous, everything seemed OK. But 
when the issue became public, we found ourselves on opposite 

It did not occur to gay leaders to defend cross-generational love 
publicly. They feared that if they did so they would lose their 
"credibility." But credibility with whom? A gay appointee to New 
York City's Human Rights Commission, for example, a long-time 
Democratic activist, told me that I was right on the issue of man/ 
boy love, "but if it ever becomes public, I'll have to oppose you." 
(To his credit, in subsequent controversies, he was more supportive 
than his comment implied.) 

David Thorstad 257 


Besides the debate in Gay Community News, the man/boy issue 
surfaced in 1979 in other ways. In response to lobbying by femi- 
nists from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its 
Rape Task Force, the New Jersey state legislature had voted to 
lower the age of consent from 16 to 13 as part of a revision of the 
state's penal code that also abolished the sodomy statute. The mea- 
sures were to take effect in the fall. The feminists had argued that 
the age-of-consent law needlessly stigmatized sexually active 
youngsters under the age of 16. This sensible stance — never again 
voiced by any wing of the mainstream U.S. women's movement — 
aroused the ire of a coalition of mothers, priests, and police, who 
staged noisy protests in the spring. New Jersey feminists agreed to a 
"compromise' ' that would keep the age of consent at 16 but would 
not criminalize sex between young people so long as the age differ- 
ential was not greater than four years. Teenagers under 16— who 
were not consulted in this "compromise"— would still be denied 
the right to choose lovers in their late teens or older. 


The man/boy love issue again surfaced early in 1979 at a national 
conference in Philadelphia which called the historic gay march on 
Washington, DC, set for October 14. On February 25, the confer- 
ence adopted the Gay Youth Caucus proposal for a demand urging 
"Full Rights for Gay Youth, including revision of the age of con- 
sent laws." At a meeting of the group's newly elected National 
Coordinating Committee, held as soon as the conference had ad- 
journed, lesbians threatened to split (thereby sabotaging the march) 
unless a substitute for the Gay Youth Caucus demand was adopted. 
It was. 

The substitute— which was drafted by an adult lesbian and subse- 
quently approved by a majority of the delegates in a mail poll (a 
favorite technique of the trade-union bureaucracy to prevent rank- 
and-file organization) — read: "Protect Lesbian and Gay Youth 
from any laws which are used to discriminate against, oppress, and/ 


or harass them in their homes, schools, jobs and social environ- 
ments." 7 

The committee explained its action as a desire "to officially 
adopt this statement to replace and enlarge the concept of the 'Re- 
vise the Age of Consent' motion in such a way as we believe to 
have been the broad meaning and will of the body. ..." It substi- 
tuted the concept of "protecting" gay youth, suggesting that they 
needed to be "protected" from choosing the wrong kind of lovers 
(i.e., gay men). It served to confuse rape or coercive sex with con- 
sensual sex and love. It suggested that age-of-consent laws protect 
young people from unwanted sex, when in reality they do just the 
opposite -they punish only sex that is consensual, on the grounds 
that the younger partner is incapable, by virtue of age, of giving 
consent, even when it is not disputed that consent was given! 

I was one of a small minority of delegates who refused to go 
along with the substitute statement and protested the undemocratic 
process whereby it was pushed through. The substitute was ageist, I 
argued, since it was written from an adult's point of view. Its notion 
of "protection" "smacks of Anita Bryant and motherhood." 
Moreover, "You don't protect a gay youth by sending his/her older 
lover to jail and by dragging the young person into Family Court, or 
worse. ... Our goal should be sexual freedom, not continued re- 
strictions on consensual sexual activity." 8 

In March 1979 lesbians in New York's Coalition for Lesbian and 
Gay Rights successfully brought a motion labeling the age-of-con- 
sent issue "divisive." Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL) issued a 
news release accusing "so-called Man/Boy Lovers" of 

attempting to legitimize sex between children and adults by 
confusing the real needs of Gay youth with a call to repeal all 
age of consent laws. Feminists easily recognize this as the 
latest attempt to make palatable the sexual exploitation of chil- 

It called the age-of-consent issue "a diversion," and put the coali- 
tion on record opposing "the sexual abuse of children by heterosex- 
ual or homosexual persons" -thereby implying that boy-lovers 

David Thorstad 259 

were guilty of "sexual abuse." It also sounded a note of censor- 

we will not passively march alongside pederast banners or 
signs, nor quietly stand and listen to pederast speeches at any 
march or rally. Lesbian Feminist Liberation will not support 
pederasts within the Lesbian and Gay movements nor any- 
where else. 9 

LFL's position suggested hostility to males. It did not go far 
enough, however, for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), whose 
delegate to the CLGR proposed that the group adopt a formal posi- 
tion "for the protection of male and female children from sexual 
abuse by adults." He argued that "adults having sex with children 
is exploitation and is the antithesis of the fight for lesbian and gay 
rights." He added, "I am not for giving children the right to con- 
sent to sex." His motion was overwhelmingly defeated and a sub- 
stitute passed expressing "opposition to the sexual abuse of chil- 
dren by homosexual or heterosexual people." The SWP thereupon 
withdrew from the coalition and from the gay movement, and went 
on to lobby women's groups not to participate in the October march 
on Washington, in part because the organizers were allegedly 
"soft" on child exploitation! 

The SWP elaborated on its position in an article in its weekly 
newspaper attacking NAMBLA and the Gay Youth demand in fa- 
vor of revising age-of-consent laws. The article showed how far a 
left-wing group could go toward adopting the agenda of the right 
wing on sexual matters: 

The repeal of age-of-consent laws is a reactionary demand, 
even though its supporters try to pass themselves off as de- 
fenders of adolescents against legal victimization. 
The campaign around this demand has nothing to do with the 
totally progressive stance of defending the right of teenagers 
not to be penalized for their sexual activity. On the contrary, 
the advocates of repealing age-of-consent laws are primarily 
adult men who believe they should be unrestricted in having 
sex with children. 
Saying that children have the "right" to "consent" to sex 


with adults is exactly like saying children should be able to 
"consent" to work in a garment factory twelve hours a day. 10 


The controversy continued to simmer. On April 1, 1980, follow- 
ing a heated debate, the CLGR decided to call for my removal as a 
kevnote speaker at a gay rights rally on the steps of the state capitol 
in Albany. Although the effort failed, it did result in most lesbian 
groups boycotting the demonstration. A half dozen of the most ac- 
tive groups in the coalition resigned. 

Later that month, a few lesbians attempted, in vain, to persuade 
NAMBLA to leave a march in New York City protesting a mobili- 
zation the same day by the Christian right wing in Washington, DC 
Mark Moffet, a 15-year-old speaker from Gay Youth of New York 
at the rally in Sheridan Square that ended the march, defended the 
right of boy-lovers to participate in the movement. He was booed 
by a claque from NOW -the only time I have seen presumably 
straight supporters boo a gay speaker at a gay rally. 

Two months later, a group calling itself the "Lesbian Caucus- 
Lesbian & Gay Pride March Committee" tried to split the annual 
New York City Gay Pride March on June 29. It distributed a leaflet 
calling on women to split from the march on the false grounds that 
the organizing committee "has been dominated by the Revolution- 
ary Socialist League, the North American Man/Boy Lovers Associ- 
ation [sic] and their supporters." At the entrance to Central Park, 
they tried to divert people away from the official rally to a separate 
event No address or phone contact appeared on the leaflet. A 
special issue of Semiotext(e) on "Loving Boys," an important con- 
tribution to the growing debate, and now an underground classic, 
was distributed at the march. 12 

NOW threw fuel on the fire in October by adopting a resolution 
at its national convention condemning pederasty, pornography, sa- 
domasochism and public sex. NOW's Lesbian Rights Committee, 
which presented the resolution, argued that these "are not Lesbian 
and gay civil rights issues" and "have been used to confuse and 
mislead NOW members, legislators and the public for too long. 
The Lesbian Rights Committee's accompanying position paper 

David Thorstad 261 

had a novel definition of pederasty ("the involvement of children 
by adults in sexual activity"!), and said, incongruously, that "it is 
well known that over 90% of all pederasts are heterosexual males 
who seek out young girls as their victims"! It also argued that 
"Pornography encourages both exploitation and violence whether 
or not it is heterosexual or homosexual in content." The authors of 
this resolution — widely interpreted as an attack on gay men— were 
clearly uninformed about male homosexuality and man/boy love. 

Two statements critical of NOW were circulated by feminist, les- 
bian and gay activists. One, signed by more than 150 people, said 
the resolution represented "narrow bigotry promulgated under the 
rubric of loving concern. " Supporters of it 

become allied with reactionary forces which are out to isolate 
and destroy all those who move beyond conventional bounda- 
ries. In giving credence to such ugly stereotypes as the boy- 
lover as child molester, they bolster and sanction the patholog- 
ical anxieties of the common culture. . . . Since NOW is 
perceived to such a great degree as representing the feminist 
movement, the resolution makes all feminists appear to be ad- 
vocates of timid respectability who automatically repudiate ev- 
erything that seems strange and different — and at worst allies, 
however unwitting, of repressive ignorance and prejudice. 13 

Controversy erupted again in 1981 when the Cornell University 
gay group, Gay People at Cornell (Gay PAC), invited me to be the 
keynote speaker at the annual May Gay festival. Over objections 
from some feminists, Gay PAC voted to reaffirm the invitation, 
but, following threats of pickets and a boycott of May Gay events 
by lesbians, withdrew it. 


On July 11, 1981, the police and the Federal Bureau of Investiga- 
tion (FBI) launched their first attack on NAMBLA, arresting two 
members and a supporter in New York, and taking several teenage 
boys into custody. All three men were charged with consensual sex 
with minors. The arrests, dubbed "Operation Hawk" by the au- 


thorities, were accompanied by the usual media hype, which re- 
peated police allegations that child pornography was involved — it 
was not — and that the home of one of the men was the NAMBLA 
"headquarters" (it was not). 

For the most part, the gay community reacted to the assaults on 
NAMBLA with diffidence. The gay press covered the busts as news 
stories. Yet the fact that lovers of youth had been thrust into the 
forefront of the attacks on gay liberation by the right wing made 
many activists uneasy— despite the fact that their own pronounce- 
ments during the preceding two years had helped to lay the ground- 
work for state repression of boy-lovers. 

A happy exception to this was the forthright support from lesbian 
sadomasochists, who had suffered similar ostracism and slander 
from "respectable" elements in the feminist movement. 14 

In the summer of 1982, the issue heated up with a "scandal" on 
Capitol Hill that forced Representative Gerry Studds out of the 
closet. Studds, a liberal Democrat from a conservative district in 
Massachusetts, was forced to admit that he had had a sexual en- 
counter with a 17-year-old male page ten years earlier in the District 
of Columbia (where the age of consent is 16). Had the relationship 
occurred in a state where the age of consent is higher, he could have 
received a prison term. (In half the American states, all same-sex 
sex, regardless of age, is still illegal, and in those where it is legal, 
the age of consent varies from 14 to 18.) Two years later, Studds 
was re-elected and became an instant hero to the gay movement — 
which, relieved that he was not caught with a boy under the age of 
consent, nevertheless persists in ignoring the pederastic nature of 
his activity. 

In the fall of 1982, NAMBLA's plan to hold its sixth national 
conference in Philadelphia's Lesbian and Gay Community Center 
ran into opposition. A handful of lesbians and one gay man went to 
the straight press in an attempt to embarrass the center into rescind- 
ing its decision — reaffirmed twice — to rent space to NAMBLA. 
The conference went ahead as planned— with police surveillance 
near the entrance to the center. A police spy was ejected for at- 
tempting to tape the proceedings. 

In December 1982 the FBI and local authorities escalated their 
harassment and arrested several NAMBLA members whom they 

David Thorstad 263 

attempted to link to the unexplained disappearance of six-year-old 
Etan Patz three and a half years earlier. The media spread allega- 
tions suggesting that NAMBLA had ties to prostitution, kidnap- 
pings, and production and distribution of kiddie porn. NAMBLA 
called simultaneous news conferences December 28 in New York 
City and Boston to refute the charges. The next day, the police 
"found" evidence in their files confirming NAMBLA's version of 
the events. 15 


The fallout from this attempt to smear NAMBLA has continued 
as a kind of tug of war within the gay community. 

On January 6, 1983, the Committee of Lesbian and Gay Male 
Socialists (CLGMS) sponsored a forum at the New York Marxist 
School at which I spoke on "Man/Boy Love and Sexual Freedom: 
What Position for Radicals?" Self-identified Christian terrorists 
threatened to attack the meeting. The Workers World Party pro- 
vided a defense guard, and the meeting proceeded without incident. 

In a letter to NAMBLA dated February 2, 1983, the gay Catholic 
group, Dignity, from Region II (New York and New Jersey) said 
that it had released a statement throughout the Church infrastructure 
dissociating itself from NAMBLA. The statement, sent to Roman 
Catholic bishops, diocesan communications offices and newspa- 
pers, and other gay religious organizations, charged that NAMBLA 
"fails to recognize" that "children should be free in their formative 
years from undue sexual influence of a heterosexual or homosexual 
nature." The statement, apparently intended to curry favor with the 
Catholic Church hierarchy (which in 1987 would crack down on 
Dignity itself, banning it from holding services in Catholic 
churches), said: "We believe it is imperative to maintain an age of 
consent in order to exercise one's sexuality in a responsible man- 
ner" -as if the role of the state was to ensure "responsible" sex! 
Dignity did not say what age of consent it supported. (The age in 
New Jersey is 16; in New York, 17; in Connecticut, 15.) 

At its national conference in New York City in August 1985, one 


called on Dignity to state that the organization has not does 
not and will not condone the North American Man/Boy Love 
Association or any organization with similar goals, such as 
seeking to set aside the age of consent, and fails to recognize 
the rights of a child to mature as a sexual being! 

Bv earlv 1987, priests in several states had been arrested and 
charged with having had sex with boys. The Church faced civil 
lawsuits from irate parents seeking millions of do ars in dam- 
ages " Dignity had no words of support for these fellow victims of 
a Church hierarchy that is probably at least 50% gay. 

On February 22, 1983, the Stop the Witchhunt Committee (a 
group of lesbians and gay men whose aim was to defend NAMBLA 
in the face of state repression) co-sponsored a forum with New 
York University's Libertarian Student Association on An Intro- 
duction to the Man/Boy Love Issue." Participants included Matta- 
chine Society founder Harry Hay, his companion John Burnside, 
Katherine Davenport, and me. 

On February 27, the CLGMS sponsored another forum, on 
"Sexual Liberation, NAMBLA, and the Lesbian and Gay Commu- 
nitv " held at the Taller Latinoamericano. On March 5, the New 
York Council of Lesbian and Gay Organizations, an umbrella 
group, held a discussion of the recent events, but took no action. On 
March 17 NYU's Libertarian Student Association held a packed 
and rowdy forum at the university's Loeb Student Center on 
"Youth Sexuality: The Case of NAMBLA," with the late Wallace 
Hamilton and me as speakers. The university's gay group refused to 
co-sponsor the event. 17 

Articles attacking NAMBLA and man/boy love appeared in the 
New York gay press. They painted NAMBLA as something alien to 
the gay movement, and opposed its position in favor of decriminal- 
izing all consensual sex. NAMBLA argued that every individual 
was different, and therefore it was absurd and discriminatory for the 
state to set an arbitrary age at which sex becomes OK. Implicitly, 
these articles argued against challenging the state s right to^ set 
whatever age of consent it desired. Homosexuals would just have to 

live with it. , r ant 

A polemic in the New York Native argued that age-of-consent 

David Thorstad 265 

laws protect children, but did not explain how they accomplish this. 
Drawing on his own personal experience ("When I was 13, I sim- 
ply wasn't ready for full-scale sexual relations."), the author ad- 
vised setting the age at 15: "For a year or two, they will have to 
suffer this denial." 18 But is it appropriate for gay adults to advise 
gay 14-year-olds to suffer in abstinence? Does this differ from the 
arguments of the right wing in favor of abstinence and against con- 

The March 9, 1983, issue of another gay paper (now defunct), 
the New York City News, carried a three-page attack on NAMBLA 
by A. Damien Martin, an associate professor of communications at 
New York University and a director of the Institute for the Protec- 
tion of Lesbian and Gay Youth (IPLGY), which has received fund- 
ing from the city and state for social services to gay and lesbian 
youth, and which began operating the city's first gay high school in 
1985. Martin's article, "The Case Against NAMBLA: Why Are 
We Ignoring the Obvious?" began with an acknowledgment of the 
perceived beneficial aspects of his own sexual involvement as a 
teenager with a manfriend, and noted the "apparent violations of 
civil rights in the NAMBLA cases, the cynicism of the law enforce- 
ment agencies in bringing in the Etan Patz case, and the irresponsi- 
bility of the press." Yet Martin insisted that "NAMBLA is an orga- 
nization outside the movement with little or no relevance to its 
goals." 19 


In 1984 the debate on man/boy love shifted to the West Coast. In 
San Francisco, efforts to remove NAMBLA from the annual Les- 
bian/Gay Freedom Day Parade failed, as they had in New York. 

NAMBLA's October 1984 convention in San Francisco's Pride 
Center included a public panel discussion on "Man/Boy Love and 
Sexual Liberation" with Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay; 
Jim Kepner, curator of the International Gay and Lesbian Archives 
in Los Angeles; Morris Kight, long-time gay rights and social activ- 
ist from Los Angeles; Jes Harrison, a 16-year-old gay youth; and 
me. The participation of Hay, Kepner, and Kight was welcome 


support from activists whose credentials went back to the begin- 
nings of the U.S. gay movement. 
Kepner poignantly observed: 

A point I've been trying to make is that if we reject the boy- 
lovers in our midst today we'd better stop waving the banner 
of the Ancient Greeks, of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, 
Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Horatio Alger, and Shake- 
speare. We'd better stop claiming them as part of our heritage 
unless we are broadening our concept of what it means to be 
gay today. 20 

A few months later, the Board of Elders of the Universal Fellow- 
ship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), the largest gay 
religious denomination, issued a statement condemning all coer- 
cive sexual activity with persons who are helpless in the situation by 
virtue of age, abilities, dependency or any other circumstance. 
The Board said that sex between adults and young people can 
never be condoned under any circumstances," and characterized 
such love as "inherently coercive even when it appears on the sur- 
face to be voluntary and a product of sexual consent. Informed con- 
sent is not possible." 21 Like Dignity and the state, MCC explained 
away consent by denying it. "I had two thoughts on this, wrote 
NAMBLA activist Bob Rhodes. 

If the rumor is correct, one or two of the Board of Elders may 
have a bit of a problem conforming their own conduct to this 
directive . Further, the National Council of Churches is still not 
going to let MCC in. 22 

In March 1985 the board of directors of New York's Lesbian and 
Gav Community Center voted unanimously at a closed meeting to 
deny the local (Horatio Alger) chapter of NAMBLA the right to rent 
meeting space there. Motivated by fear that NAMBLA s presence 
would jeopardize fund-raising at a time when the center had applied 
for grants of $200,000 from the state and $150,000 from the city, it 
also turned down NAMBLA's request to meet with it prior to the 
vote The board's action seemed to illustrate Malcolm X s state- 
ment- "When they lay those dollars on you, your soul goes, (in 

David Thorstad 267 

1986, following adoption of a gay civil rights bill by the New York 
City Council, NAMBLA again applied for the right to rent space in 
the center. When its request was again denied, it filed a complaint 
of discrimination against the center with the city's Human Rights 
Commission. The commission refused to hear the complaint. In the 
fall of 1989, the center denied space to NAMBLA for a poetry 
reading by Allen Ginsberg. The board refused to explain its denial.) 

In August 1985 NAMBLA's application for membership in New 
York's Council of Lesbian and Gay Organizations resulted in its 
being admitted by a close vote. (A subsequent effort to expel it 
failed.) A couple of months earlier, the International Gay Associa- 
tion had accepted NAMBLA as a member group. The IGA (now 
known as the International Lesbian and Gay Association) has had a 
position in favor of abolishing age-of-consent laws since its meeting 
in Washington, DC, in the fall of 1981, but continues to be of 
mixed mind about the issue. 

In Los Angeles, NAMBLA had participated in Gay Pride 
marches as part of a contingent opposing U.S. intervention in El 
Salvador, but in 1985 its application to march as a group in its own 
right was denied by the business-oriented organizing group, Chris- 
topher Street West (CSW). 

At the 1986 Los Angeles march, veteran activist Harry Hay, 
marching with the Radical Faeries (a group he founded), wore a 
hand-made sign stating, simply, "NAMBLA walks with me." The 
organizers, apparently apoplectic, summoned mounted police, who 
surrounded the Faery contingent and threatened to arrest Hay if he 
did not remove his sign. He refused. 23 


During the past few years, hysteria about "child sexual abuse" 
reached new peaks in the United States. The hysteria has height- 
ened the fears of an uninformed public. It has served to soften up 
public opinion for right-wing attacks on civil liberties and "vice." 
It may also represent a kind of coup within the "helping profes- 
sions" by social workers and psychologists anxious to break out of 
their poor cousin status and, like psychiatrists, promote themselves 
as indispensable "expert witnesses" in court. Police departments 


all over the country are using anatomically "correct" dolls to ex- 
tract confessions about "bad touching" and "sexual abuse." Child 
care workers, and even parents, are fearful of false accusations of 
"child molestation" for showing affection to children, or even 
changing their diapers. 

Millions of milk cartons sport pictures of missing children — the 
dairy industry's anxiety-inducing message to children that only par- 
ents can be trusted. One mother was overheard in a San Francisco 
supermarket admonishing her child: "If you don't behave, you'll 
end up on a milk carton!" 24 This despite the fact that most missing 
children have either run away from home or been kidnapped by one 
of their own estranged parents. The FBI attributes only around 60 or 
so child disappearances a year to "stranger abduction." 


The U.S. gay movement has made a truce with the state not to 
challenge the prevailing ages of consent, which vary from state to 
state. When the state of Wisconsin, for example, decriminalized 
homosexual sex between adults in 1983, an amendment was added 
that increased from a misdemeanor to a felony sex between an adult 
and a teenager 16 or 17 years old! There was no outcry from the gay 
movement over this attack on the rights of young people. 25 

This reticence on the part of the gay movement to discuss man/ 
boy love does not, of course, prevent opponents of gay rights from 
bringing it up themselves. New York's John Cardinal O'Connor, 
for example, told the press on January 12, 1986, that one reason the 
New York Archdiocese was opposing a proposed gay rights bill was 
that "We cannot accept man/boy relationships." 26 On this, appar- 
ently, Dignity and the Cardinal can agree! 

In present-day America it is all right to talk or publish books 
about boy-love in Ancient Greece or the pederasty of Great Men 
like Byron. But it is quite another matter to leave the academic 
ivory tower and acknowledge that boy-love goes on in every neigh- 
borhood today. 

The gay movement is no longer a protagonist with a long-range 
vision of sexual freedom and progressive social change. Even the 
catastrophe of AIDS has brought little recognition from the gay 

David Thorstad 269 

community of the need for socialized medicine or a national health 
insurance (and barely audible noises from the moribund left) — de- 
spite the fact that the United States is the only "advanced" Western 
society without such a program. Socialized medicine is the only 
way to insure effective health delivery to persons with AIDS, 
whose hospital costs may reach $150,000 by the time they die. 27 

History is a pendulum on which things often change into their 
opposite. Lurches forward and setbacks, not an incremental ad- 
vance, characterize the struggle for social change. The controver- 
sies over boy-love have been around since the beginning of the gay 
movement a century ago. The fact that they are again being debated 
demonstrates both the fragility of the gay movement's achieve- 
ments before it was wiped out by Hitler and Stalin, and the irrepres- 
sibility of aspirations for sexual freedom. 


1. San Francisco Free Press, November 1-14, 1969. The news item ap- 
peared on page 3, which was dominated by the head "IN THE STREETS FOR 
THE REVOLUTION." Elsewhere in the issue was an ad for a catalogue from 
D.O.M. offering "the first in young male nude photography." D.O.M. was a 
pseudonym for pioneer gay activist Guy Strait, who died in 1987. (See the obitu- 
ary by John Fish in the NAMBLA Bulletin, January-February 1988.) 

2. The Preamble to GAA's constitution demanded "an immediate end to all 
oppression of homosexuals" and certain "basic rights," including "THE RIGHT 
TO LOVE. This is the right to express our feelings in action, the right to make 
love with anyone, anyway, anytime, provided only that such action be freely 
chosen by individuals involved." GAA's policy, adopted in the early seventies, 
was "to work for the immediate change in all laws to remove restrictions related 
to homosexual acts between consenting persons." The reference to "consenting 
persons" rather than "consenting adults" was deliberate. The group's pamphlet 
20 Questions about Homosexuality skirted the question of cross-generational love, 
stating only that "Homosexuals join heterosexuals in agreeing that young people 
as well as adults must be protected from unwanted sexual advances ..." (ques- 
tion 17, emphasis added). 

3. In their book Homosexualities, based on research conducted over the pre- 
vious decade, Alan P. Bell and Martin S. Weinberg found that 25% of "white 
homosexual males" and 14% of "black homosexual males" had had as sexual 
partners boys who were 16 or younger when they themselves were 21 or older (pp. 
18 and 311). 

4. Gerald Hannon, Body Politic, December 1977-January 1978, pp. 29-33. 

5. Gay Community News, January 6, 1979, p. 5. 


6. Gay Community News, March 3, 1979, p. 5. 

7. Copy in author's files. The poll, dated February 26, 1979, contained sev- 
eral misspelled words, which have been corrected here. 

8. Copy in author's files. This statement, dated March 7, 1979, was sent to 
as many members of the committee as addresses could be found for. Seven years 
later, a conference in New York City (November 14-16, 1986) to call a second 
march on Washington the following October adopted as a demand the repeal of 
"all laws that violate the right to privacy by criminalizing consensual sex above 
the sexual age of consent" (emphasis added). The workshop on demands defeated 
the following motion: "Government out of the bedroom! No state regulation of 
sex." By 1986, the U.S. gay movement had become so disoriented by hysteria 
about youth sexuality that it actually favored government regulation of consensual 
sex -especially if it involved gay men and underage youths! 

9. "Man/Boy Lovers -New Group, Old Story." (Emphasis in original.) 
Copy in author's files. 

10. Rich Finkel and Matilde Zimmermann, "The class-struggle road to win- 
ning gay rights," The Militant, April 13, 1979, p. 25. For an answer to this 
article, see David Thorstad, "The Socialist Workers Party vs. Gay Liberation (or 
the Cuckoo Builds a Strange Nest)," in the Gay Activist (June-July, 1979) and in 
Gay Insurgent (No. 7, Spring 1981). In contrast to the SWP, two small Trotsky ist 
groups -the Revolutionary Socialist League and the Spartacist League -defended 
NAMBLA and opposed government interference in any consensual relationship, 
regardless of the age of the partners. 

11. Copy in author's files. 

12. Semiotext(e) Special: Loving Boys, available for $1 plus postage from 
Semiotext(e), 522 Philosophy Hall, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. 

13. Both statements are printed in the "sex issue" of Heresies, #12 (1981), 
p. 92. 

14. See especially Pat Califia's two-part article "The Age of Consent" in The 
Advocate, October 16 and October 30, 1980; and the two-part interview with 
Califia and Gayle Rubin defending sexual freedom, man/boy love, and sadomaso- 
chism in Gay Community News, July 18 and August 15, 1981. See also Coming to 
Power by SAMOIS, the lesbian-feminist S/M organization, first published in 
1981, and reprinted by Alyson Publications, Boston, in 1982. 

15. This story is told in the book ,4 Witchhunt Foiled: The FBI vs. NAMBLA, 
published by NAMBLA, New York, 1985. Available for $6.95 (postpaid) from 
NAMBLA, P.O. Box 174 Midtown Station, New York, NY 10018. 

16. "800 Attend 7th Biennial Dignity Convention," New York Native, Sep- 
tember 30-October 6, 1985, p. 18. 

17. The March 17, 1983, issue of the Libertarian Student Association's publi- 
cation, Libertarian Broadside, was devoted to NAMBLA's positions. 

18. Charles Jurrist, "Grim Fairy Tales: The World According to NAMBLA," 
New York Native, February 28-March 13, 1983. 

19. New York City News, March 9, 1983, p. 1. The publisher refused 
NAMBLA's request for space to reply. In 1981, IPLGY-whose name sounds 

David Thorstad 27/ 

like it was designed to look good on grant applications -expelled three members 
of NAMBLA on the grounds that man/boy love was incompatible with its goals. 
"We felt from the beginning that NAMBLA's goals and priorities were antitheti- 
cal to the needs of gay and lesbian youth," Martin told the New York Native (July 
1-14, 1985). He said that his institute tells gay youth that one of their options is to 
"postpone sex until it can be more satisfying." This sounds like the advice of the 
Reagan Administration, whose Adolescent Family Life Program funded 71 proj- 
ects in 1981 urging teenagers to practice sexual abstinence. Martin was appointed 
by Governor Mario Cuomo to the New York State Council on Youth Suicide 
Prevention in the fall of 1985. At the New York City Gay Pride March on June 30, 
1985, some of the IPLGY youths broke into a chant of "2, 4, 6, 8 -How do you 
know your wife is straight? 3, 5, 7, 9 -Hey, lady, your husband's mine!" They 
were quickly shushed up by one of IPLGY's top men. 

20. "Boy-Love Activists Seek Gay Support" by Mark McHarry, Bay Area 
Reporter, October 11, 1984. Hay and Kepner again addressed a NAMBLA con- 
ference in Los Angeles on November 7, 1986. 

21. New York Native, March 25-April 7, 1985, p. 10. 

22. "Quid Nunc," NAMBLA Bulletin, May 1985, p. 15. 

23. A member of the contingent tore off Hay's sign, ostensibly to protest the 
interference with Hay's right to carry whatever sign he wanted. Hay escaped 
arrest, but CSW's attempt to censor a founder of the American gay movement 
aroused widespread indignation. This did not prevent CSW from formally voting 
to censure Hay a few weeks later. 

24. Private communication to author from a lesbian girl-lover. 

25. This "realism" is not new. The boy-love movement in Germany at the 
beginning of the century arose as part of the new homosexual activism and self- 
organization, and its trajectory intersected that of the broader gay movement. 
Boy-lovers were hardly (as A. Damien Martin put it) "outside the movement" - 
one of the first gay magazines, Der Eigene, was inspired by boy-love and anar- 
chism. But then, as now, the two groupings did not always see eye to eye. Some 
of the issues they confronted are still around today (the nature of same-sex love, 
sexual liberation or law reform, the age of consent, attitudes toward women's 
liberation). On these, boy-lovers had views that differed from those of other ho- 
mosexuals, as well as from each other. The anarchist boy-lover John Henry 
Mackay, for example, who wrote under the pen name Sagitta, was indignant at the 
efforts of Magnus Hirschfeld's Scientific Humanitarian Committee to trade off 
repeal of Paragraph 175, the sodomy statute, for setting an age of consent at 16. 
"For it has been shown again in these years," he wrote in the preface to the 1924 
edition of his Buecher dernamenlosen Liebe (Books of the Nameless Love), "that 
this love has to look for its worst enemies among those who call themselves 
'leaders' in this fight and have made themselves responsible, in one of their ridic- 
ulous and degrading petitions to those currently in power, have publicly advocated 
an 'age of consent' -not for children, but for mature boys and youths -and 
thereby the prosecution and punishment of those whom they know, as no others 
do, to be just as innocent as themselves, and once again those who love an older 


age have sought to save themselves at the cost of the comrades-in-fate of their 
time — a betrayal of the cause more disgraceful in intention and more dreadful in 
its result cannot be imagined." (Quoted in Hubert Kennedy, Anarchist of Love: 
The Secret Life of John Henry Mackay, p. 10.) Plus ca change, plus c f est la meme 
chose. For a more detailed discussion of these subjects, see my essay "Man/Boy 
Love Then and Now- A Personal-Political Appraisal" in NAMBLA Journal No. 
7 (1986). 

26. WCBS-TV news report, January 12, 1986, 6:30 p.m. 

27. NAMBLA is one of the few gay groups to address the subject. On January 
11, 1986, its Steering Committee adopted an official position on AIDS that in- 
cluded a demand for "Free health care for persons with AIDS." By early 1989, 
New York City's AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was advancing the 
slogan "Health Care is a Right," which implicitly points to the need for a national 
health care program. 


Bab, E. (1903). Die Gleichgeschlechtliche Liebe (Lieblingminne). Ein Wort ixber 
ihr Wesen und ihre Bedeutung [Same-sex love (Lieblingminne). A word about 
its nature and its significance]. Berlin: Hugo Schildberger Verlag. 

Bab, E. (1904). Frauenbewegung und Freundesliebe: Versuch einer Losung des 
geschlechtlichen Problems [Women's movement and the love of friends: At- 
tempt at a solution to the problem of sex]. Berlin-Charlottenburg: Adolf Brand/ 
Der Eigene. 

Bell, A., & Weinberg, M. (1978). Homosexualities. New York: Simon and 

Califia, P. (1980). The age of consent. The Advocate, October 16 and October 30. 

Chicken hawks no longer in Dutch. (1969). San Francisco Free Press, November 
1-14, p. 3. 

Daniels, I. (1983). NAMBLA, age of consent, and human sexuality. Torch, Janu- 
ary 15-February 14, pp. 4-5. 

Defend NAMBLA! (1983). Workers Vanguard, 14 January, p. 6. 

800 attend 7th biennial Dignity convention. (1985). New York Native, September 
30-October 6, p. 18. 

Finkel, R., & Zimmermann, M. (1979). The class-struggle road to winning gay 
rights. Militant, April 13, pp. 24-25. 

Fish, J. (1988). Artist/Activist fought for rights of men and boys. NAMBLA Bulle- 
tin, January-February, pp. 8-9. 

Gay Activists Alliance, [no date]. 20 questions about homosexuality. New York: 

Gay Activists Alliance, [no date]. Repeal the New York consensual sodomy stat- 
ute! New York: GAA. 

Gay church group condemns pedophiles. (1985). New York Native, March 25- 
April 7, p. 10. 

David Thorstad 273 

Hannon, G. (1977). Men loving boys loving men. Body Politic, December 1977- 
January 1978, pp. 29-33. 

Hirschfeld, M. Jahrbuch fur sexuelle Zwischenstufen [Yearbook for intermediate 
sexual types]. 

Hohmann, J. S. (Ed.; 1981). Der Eigene: Ein Blatt fur mdnnliche Kultur [Der 
Eigene: A newspaper for male culture]. Frankfurt/Berlin: Foerster Verlag. 

Jurrist, C. (1983). Grim fairy tales: The world according to NAMBLA. New York 
Native, February 28-March 13. 

Kelly, B. (1979). On "woman/girl love" -or, lesbians do "do it." Gay Commu- 
nity News, March 3, p. 5. 

Kennedy, H. (1983). Anarchist of love: The secret life of John Henry Mackay. 
New York: Mackay Society. 

Kupffer, E. von. (1900). Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltliteratur. 
Eine Sammlung mit einer ethisch-politischen Einleitung [Lieblingminne and 
the love of friends in world literature. A compilation with an ethical-political 
introduction]. Berlin-Neurahnsdorf: Adolf Brand's Verlag. 

Lauritsen, J., & Thorstad, D. (1974). The early homosexual rights movement 
(1864-1935). New York: Times Change Press. 

Libertarian Student Association. (1983). The case for NAMBLA. Libertarian 
Broadside, March 17. 

Mackay, J. H. (1979). Die Buecher der namenlosen Liebe [The books of the 
nameless love], Vol. I. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel. 

Martin, A. D. (1983). The case against NAMBLA: Why are we ignoring the 
obvious? New York City News, March 9, p. 1 . 

Mass, L., M.D. (1985). Protecting lesbian and gay youth (an interview with 
Emory Hetrick and Damien Martin). New York Native, July 1-14, pp. 38-42. 

McHarry, M. (1984). Boy-love activists seek gay support. Bay Area Reporter, 
October 11. 

Mitzel. (1980). The Boston sex scandal. Boston: Glad Day Books. 

North American Man/Boy Love Association. (1985). A witchhunt foiled: The FBI 
vs. NAMBLA. Introduction by David Thorstad. New York: NAMBLA. 

North American Man/Boy Love Association. (1981). Boys speak out on man/boy 
love. New York: NAMBLA. 

People organize to protest recent NOW resolution on lesbian and gay rights 
(1981). In Heresies No. 12 ("sex issue"). 

Rhodes, R. (1985). Quid nunc. NAMBLA Bulletin, May, p. 15. 

SAMOIS. (1982). Coming to power: Writings and graphics on lesbian SIM. Bos- 
ton: Alyson Publications. 

Semiotext(e) special: Loving boys. (1980). New York: Semiotext(e). 

Thorstad, D. (1979). A statement to the gay liberation movement on the issue of 
man/boy love. Gay Community News, January 6, p. 5. 

Thorstad, D. (Ed.; 1981). Gay liberation and socialism: Documents from the 
discussions on gay liberation inside the Socialist Workers Party (1970-1973) 
(2nd ed.). New York: Privately printed. 



Thorstad, D. (1986). Man/boy love then and now-a personal-political appraisal. 
NAMBLA Journal (No. 7), pp. 6-13. 

Thorstad, D. (1979). The Socialist Workers Party vs. gay liberation (or the 
cuckoo builds a strange nest). Gay Activist, June-July, pp. 12-16. (Also pub- 
lished in Gay Insurgent (No. 7), Spring 1981, pp. 17-23.) 

Tsang, D. (Ed.; 1981). The age taboo: Gay male sexuality, power and consent. 
Boston: Alyson Publications. 

Wechsler, N. (1981). A state of siege: The new right and sexual repression. Gay 
Community News, July 18, pp. 4-5. Sadomasochism: Fears, facts, fantasies. 
Gay Community News, August 15, pp. 6-8. (Interview with Pat Califia and 
Gayle Rubin.)